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Conversation and Media Consumption

August 16, 2013

I just finished reading Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business by Lynda Obst.  The book describes the changes in Hollywood film-making that have resulted in the current wave of franchise blockbusters, and the difficulties in getting a non-franchise picture made.  Obst’s picture is rather bleak for movies without an intellectual property, but there are still a handful of ways to get the green light.

One such strategy is to appeal to conversation: “People will see this movie so they can talk about this movie.”  The most high-profile example that Obst describes is Inception (2010), written and directed by Christopher Nolan.  She writes:

How did Warner Bros.’s marketing team take an unknown property like Inception and turn it into an unexpected blockbuster?  They made it a must-see phenomenon.  If you didn’t have an opinion about Inception by Saturday, the day after it opened, you were simply uncool … It was beyond water-cooler talk.  It was the brunch topic in Chicago, the dinner party chatter in Austin and Denver.  If you hadn’t seen it by Sunday, you were in the theater Sunday night to be ready for work chat Monday.

I think that Obst is hinting at something about the nature of culture: it thrives on discussion.  What makes a movie memorable or noteworthy isn’t the product on screen, but the conversations that we have about the product on screen.  We love to argue about character motivations and plot twists.  We want to talk about possible story continuations and action sequences.  Hell, why do you think the Oscars are still a big deal?  It’s because we love to argue about what the best films of the year were.

Put it this way: I didn’t like Inception.  I thought its take on dreaming was way too straightforward and the character motivations were vague.  But, and this the important thing, I remember it.  It remains ingrained in my mind because of the disagreements I had with people about it’s meaning and qualities.  Had I never engaged in a conversation with people who did like it, I’m sure that I’d have forgotten about it within a couple of weeks.

Now, I think there is a legitimate question about whether a studio can effectively manufacture a conversation.  Inception had a lot of selling points besides its subject matter; it starred Leonardo DiCaprio as the lead, and Nolan was fresh off The Dark Knight (2008).  I’m not sure that a film without those characteristics would be nearly as successful, even if the “must-see” factor were pushed.  And perhaps claiming a film is is “must-see” makes the movie sound like homework instead of a pleasure.

But then again, perhaps all one needs for a conversation is media awareness.  Surely if the press is constantly talking about a movie, there has to be something there worth seeing, right?  There must be a conversation that the viewer can join.  There’s a reason why studios spend so much on marketing, or send the stars out on press tours.

This isn’t just limited to movies.  Television fandoms are driven by debates and speculation.  We argue about the catchy new songs on the radio, and we get book recommendations from our friends.  To bring it all back home, why did I read Sleepless in Hollywood in the first place?  I mean, I like film, but I’m not exactly in the market for an insider’s take on Hollywood.  It’s because of the conversation I saw people were having based on the book.

I first heard about Sleepless in Hollywood on the June 27 broadcast of WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show.  Like many books I hear about on public radio, I was intrigued but didn’t rush out to get it.  But in the following weeks, I found articles on a litany of different websites, from Slate to The A. V. Club, which referenced Obst’s book in relation to this summer’s string of high-profile movie flops.  There was a conversation about Obst’s arguments, and I wanted in.

I’m not saying the desire for conversation is the sole reason we watch or read things.  But if discussion gets people to watch a movie about dreams-within-dreams, or gets me to read an executive producer’s account of studio politics, then it’s safe to say that conversation is a major factor in media consumption.

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From → Film & TV, Literature

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